Features I by I 08.11.16

Boiler Room’s Weekender was a naive experiment that revealed Trump’s America

On Friday, November 4, Ray Ban and Boiler Room teamed up for their first weekend festival, inviting the cream of the world’s diverse underground club scene to a small year-round vacation resort in Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania. On Saturday night, it was shut down after violent involvement from local police and security. FACT’s John Twells witnessed an experiment gone wrong.

We were an hour outside of the Split Rock resort, an idyllic lakeside retreat in the Pocono Mountains, about two hours drive from New York City, when we started to feel uncomfortable. We’d already spotted a few Trump/Pence signs on our long trek from Boston, but nearing the Poconos their frequency increased. I was traveling with two friends; both non-white, they picked up on the subtext immediately. “We can’t stop here, huh?” noted one, pointing to a dimly lit bar surrounded by an outcropping of Trump signage. “It’s like Halloween – but instead of being scared of Michael Myers, you’re terrified of racists,” we joked nervously, driving past picket fences demanding to “make America great again”.

There was no awkward encounter with strange locals at a gas station, no manic hitchhikers or drunken priests to ward us away – but the scene was set. The drive was like the eerie intro to a horror movie that’s a vivid documentary for people of color in America.

Our unease subsided a little when we checked in to the resort, soon transformed into sheer disbelief at the surreal situation unfolding. As we drove to the main building, I narrowly missed hitting not only a deer but a wild cat of some kind, within just a few seconds. We wandered into the main foyer a little shaken but still positive – music was already playing in the lobby as confused millennials traipsed around grabbing wristbands, keys and flashlights. It’s hard to overstate how odd this all seemed from the start. It was as if someone had welded a water park to a conference center; brightly colored slides surrounded the building, but inside you’d be forgiven for thinking you were at a tech industry trade show circa 1987.

Boiler Room Weekender

At this stage, attendance was minimal – the traffic from New York had been worse than expected and numbers were worryingly low. When Kamasi Washington performed in the Keystone Ballroom that night – a large hall more suited to a product launch or a prom – it was so under-attended that we (and many others) assumed he was sound-checking; we were wrong. The rest of the shows had been delayed to allow crowds to accumulate, but the mood was tense. The event staff seemed confused as to what was happening – this didn’t appear to be what they’d signed up for, whatever “this” was. I spoke to a bartender in a makeshift smoking area and was eager to find out what she made of it. She told me, unprompted, that she’d never even set foot in the city.

“I’m a country girl – I like hunting, shooting. I’ve got 40 acres.”

“That’s great, but it’s gotta be worth getting out of your comfort zone sometimes,” I suggested, hinting at the irony of the situation.

“Well, I actually went once as a kid, for the Christmas tree. It was terrible, my dad hated it.”

We laughed, but felt uncomfortable – we knew our every move was being scrutinized. The bartender admitted she was surprised at how polite these “city folk” had been, but the mood was already tense and the event had hardly started yet. Walking towards the Arcade – a working amusement center repurposed into a venue – we overheard the private security guards – all white men – tutting to each other that the event was a “mistake” and would “never happen again”. Nothing untoward had happened at this point. People had arrived and committed the cardinal crime of looking unusual – non-white and openly queer – in an area where such differences would not be ignored.

As the night went on, “trouble” spots were identified by security and a small number of armed police, who had been prowling around the resort like predators waiting to pounce. The Governors Ballroom played host to Kanye associate Virgil Abloh’s showcase and was fun, if uninspiring, as it ran into the small hours. But playing loud rap and grime all night and attracting a mixed crowd did not go unnoticed by those operating security. At one point, we stepped out to another smoking area and were passed by security running and gloating about a “ganja” bust. In 2016, cannabis is legal in four states – in Pennsylvania it’s still outlawed, but it’s been decriminalized in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the state’s largest cities. It felt as if there was a motivation from security not to simply do their job, but to exercise some kind of moral judgement – one which criminalized people of color.

The security presence put a damper on things, but on Friday it was simply an uncomfortable party with no arrests. We even managed to catch some music. The Discwoman showcase in the Arcade was great, propped up by a splattery, unpredictable set from hardware fiend Via App, while the Fixed showcase at the Rock Bar made for a good pitstop as we struggled to find internet service in the foyer. As things began to wind down at the main resort, we wandered back to our apartment to regroup before heading to the after-parties. At this point it was below freezing outside, so we called for a bus – the recommended transport for the weekend – to take us to the parties, as they were a long way from our apartment. Sadly, the people operating the buses had massively misjudged the demand. After we managed to get through to the front desk, we were left waiting for an hour and a half. Our neighbors were even told that they had stopped taking bookings as it was too busy. By the time the bus arrived, we’d nodded off on the couch listening to Rinse FM podcasts.

When we got up, we felt short-changed. The main topic of discussion was how to fit in all the stuff we wanted to see in the evening. We didn’t want to miss the after-parties, but we were dead set on making sure we caught DJ Haram, MikeQ and Kamixlo at the GHE2OGOTH1K showcase in the Governors Ballroom. We also wanted to check out Honey Soundsystem on the Mezzanine (the best space of all, overlooking a cavernous rec room), NAAFI in the Billiards Room, and Ital in the Arcade. Blood Orange was playing in the Ballroom. Mixpak were holding a showcase in the water park. It was bound to be a good day.

It started well enough, too. After a bad pizza experience the night before, we left the resort in an attempt to find proper food. We came across Piggy’s diner, a quaint brunch spot covered from top to (curly) tail in novelty pig memorabilia. We weren’t the only Boiler Room Weekender visitors to have this idea – the place was heaving with guests and the staff were visibly strained – but the coffee was flowing and huge plates of pancakes, eggs and bacon were soaking up some of the last night’s excess. This was also the site of the weekend’s best moment for our small group: as we were finishing our breakfast, Andre 3000 casually strolled in and put down his name for a table. The surreal weekend just leveled up.

We were in high spirits when we got back to the resort and the water park was already busy as dancehall and reggaeton bounced around the glass walls. There was a security check on the way in if you had bags, but things felt more casual than the evening before. The music wasn’t the focus here, it was just an extra layer to the experience, and it worked. We hardly even noticed the escalation of police presence at first. Elsewhere, the NON showcase in the Governors Ballroom was underway and I caught a syrupy, euphoric set from Angel Ho, who blended noise, ambience and jagged beats in front of a sparse audience, ending on T2’s bassline classic ‘Heartbroken’. There might not have been many people watching, but it was quietly the musical highlight of the weekend.

At dinner, things started to turn sour. Spurred on by our experience at Piggy’s, we attempted to give the town the benefit of the doubt and try one of the restaurants. This was different, though – we walked into a busy Saturday night full of locals watching a cover band stomp through a rendition of the Goo Goo Dolls’ ‘Slide’. The staff, through a thin veneer of small town politeness, made it clear we weren’t welcome – offering us seats at the bar and then chastising us for taking them as if we were naughty children. “I think I’m the darkest person in here,” my friend said to me as we sat down hesitantly. “At least the beer’s cheap.” The band rattled through The Eagles’ ‘Take it Easy’. Yuengling was $3.50 a pint.

The mood had changed considerably when we returned to Split Rock. Police cars circled the resort slowly, looking for anything untoward. Many of the parties were delayed and movement around the main venue became difficult as the security began to establish search stations and checkpoints. We now couldn’t move freely between the venues. A checkpoint had been set up at the entrance to the Governors Ballroom, which would be hosting the GHE2OGOTH1K showcase all night. This was the only checkpoint that was tagged to a specific room.

I flagged down a Boiler Room staffer to ask what was happening and was told that security had expressed concerns about “weapons and glass bottles”. Someone also had the decency to say we should take anything illegal (meaning drugs) back to the apartment as the searches were going to be serious. Something was off – the event hadn’t been violent or even particularly lively. Up until these checkpoints had been erected, the night had been completely uneventful. We couldn’t shake the feeling that security was looking for a reason to bring the event to a close – they had made their feelings clear the night before and the mood was resentful and angry. What exactly wasn’t working was hard to ascertain – was it that there was a growing, diverse crowd of young people enjoying themselves? It seemed that way. At this point no arrests had been made and no medical attention had been required.

Boiler Room Weekender

Entering the Governors Ballroom for Kamixlo’s set, things were drastically different. We were ordered into different lines by increasingly aggressive security who were dissecting people’s belongings on a small table. It felt like airport security – and they weren’t looking for weapons. Still, the mood inside was positive – this party was a focal point of the weekend and felt like it. Kamixlo was effortless in his selections, blending jerky rhythms with eerie vocals and pristine pop with dissonant synth stabs. At some point, the group I was with wandered into another part of the resort while I continued to enjoy Kamixlo, and as his set came to a close, my friend texted to say she’d been invasively searched by security. She was feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable. I attempted to find her, but with spotty internet service that wasn’t an easy task. I looped around the resort, checking in on the various areas, and by the time I made it back to the Governors Ballroom the situation had escalated rapidly.

A young black woman, later identified as 19-year-old Kaylan Jones, was being dragged through the resort foyer in handcuffs, tears streaming down her cheeks. She was being flanked by a large group of armed local police and security – so many that I wondered what the hell she could have done. I caught sight of my friend, who was shaken, angry and tearful. She told me that the woman had been searched entering the GHE2OGOTH1K showcase and had allegedly been caught with a small amount of weed. As police surrounded her aggressively, she had had a panic attack – hardly a surprising reaction given the situation. This made police and security more angry, and as bystanders urged them to give the woman some space the police lashed out, screaming at guests to stop filming and stop attempting to get involved.

It was hard not to get involved. One man got too close; as I walked out of hotel lobby to a cacophony of screams, security and police were on top of him, visibly assaulting him. We recorded what we could as a crowd amassed, but police loudly told guests they would be arrested if they didn’t go to their rooms. “No music at all. It’s done,” one officer bellowed at us. “Get out of here one by one. We are not putting up with this AT ALL,” he screamed. “That’s it!”

At one point, we heard a cop shout to another, “They don’t know what we’ve been through here.” My friends and I just stared at each other in disbelief. It was if these small town moral enforcers were experiencing their own World War II, a decisive victory over the corruption being brought in by “inner city” types. All that was said through tears and yelps on the walk home was, “I’m so glad this wasn’t worse.” We were at a music festival and were leaving glad that nobody had been shot.

The entire experience was a condensed representation of Trump’s America – a hateful, puritanical white supremacy propped up by bullying, bigotry and lies, and built on the sturdy structures of institutionalized racism. All of this felt so avoidable. Boiler Room yesterday released a statement to say they had wanted to bring their own security, which could have helped. The Weekender would have been an uncomfortable, awkward party without arrests – but instead there’s a young woman in county jail on $50,000 bail and a young man with grievous bodily injuries.

It was wishful thinking on Boiler Room’s part that a festival could cut through this small town moral enforcement and and establish a safe space in what amounted to enemy territory for some attendees. Lake Harmony’s cops and the hotel’s security no doubt sat down in Piggy’s for breakfast the next day, scarfing down pancakes and guzzling hot coffee as they traded war stories about the events of this weekend.

Hopefully, Boiler Room have learned something here. To ignore the variables at play – crucially, that they were running a racially diverse event in an area that criminalizes skin color – was negligent. It was naive, perhaps, to think that the outcome of this experiment could ever be positive. Let’s just hope that there’s a better outcome on election day.



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